Dishonest GA unemployment claims from those with job offers could result in criminal charges

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*For an update to this story, including an interview with GDOL Commissioner Mark Buter, click here.*

Georgia’s current unemployment rate is 4.2% and the state’s Department of Labor is dealing with record numbers of unemployment claims. Since the middle of March, the GDOL has filled more claims than the previous four years combined.

But now, many businesses are reopening and rehiring. There are some people who have been earning more money collecting unemployment, than they were making while employed. If however, you have been offered your old job back and refused to return to work, your unemployment claim can be denied. If you are still filing claims and have had the option to return to work, the state may take legal action to get back payments made for unemployment claims.

“I think what you’ll see is, is that a year, or two years from now, some states are going to try to recover some of that money,” says attorney Zane Leiden. Leiden is a managing partner at Leiden & Leiden Attorneys at Law in Augusta. “You know, they will find out that a person was able to return work May 18th and chose not to,” he said as an example. “And then whatever they were paid past that point, they’ll try to recover that money,” said Leiden

Leiden also noted that you may face other consequences from the state if you’re not being honest about your unemployment claims.

“You can be criminally prosecuted as well,” said Leiden. “And that’s something that, especially with the Georgia Department of Labor, we’ve seen them be fairly aggressive over the last couple of years in using both criminal and civil proceedings to recoup that money,” he added.

You can however, still return to work and collect unemployment if your weekly wages are under $300 without fear of any penalties under a special order from Georgia Governor Brian Kemp.

“Thanks to Governor Kemp and his support, we were able to issue an emergency rule that increased the earnings exemption amount from $55 to $300 allowing individuals to make $300 a week without reducing their weekly benefit amount,” said Georgia Department of Labor Commissioner Mark Butler. “If a business opens back up slowly and their employees are returning to work with reduced hours, employers can continue to file employer-filed partial claims on behalf of their employees,” said Butler.

Pursuant to the emergency rule issued on March 26, 2020, an individual can make up to $300 per week without reducing their maximum weekly benefit amount, allowing employees to work reduced hours and still qualify for state weekly benefits and the federal $600 weekly supplement.

Leiden also says you need to adjust your withholding’s for whatever taxes you may end up owing on your unemployment funds.

Those who are making more than they were while employed are likely benefitting from the additional federal funds being contributed.

According to the Georgia Department of Labor, the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, or FPUC, which provides an additional $600 weekly payment to any individual eligible for any of the Unemployment Compensation programs – state and federal. The GDOL is distributing this additional payment to those currently receiving state or federal unemployment benefits. This supplement is an additional payment to regular weekly state unemployment benefits and includes all eligible weeks beginning with the week ending 4/4/2020. Your payment may not be $600 weekly if you have elected to have state and federal taxes deducted. Federal taxes are deducted at 10% and state taxes at 6%. Unemployment benefits are taxable income. Other deductions may include court ordered or voluntary child support or repayment of an UI overpayment (one-half of your $600 FPUC payment will be deducted and applied to your outstanding overpayment).

Dealing with and filing unemployment claims can be a complicated process, and with the GDOL dealing with so many cases while their offices are closed, getting answers to your specific questions can be difficult. GDOL workers are still doing what they can by responding to emails and fielding phone calls.

“If you’re not sure, and this is what I would want anybody to know, if you’re not sure about whether or not you should receive it, or when you should stop receiving it, you want to talk to somebody at the department of labor,” said Leiden.

Leiden has advice for those who are having trouble getting answers.

“You’ve got to try,” he says. “And if there’s a way to document everything, if you’ve got a specific person you’ve been dealing with that you can email, so that you have a record of those communications later on, that’s probably the best way to handle it right now,” said Leiden.

There is help on the way for the sometimes complicated claims process for employers and their former employees. This week the GDOL will roll out a program which will allow employer filed partial claims to be converted to individual claims. This new process will allow employees who are permanently terminated the opportunity to continue receiving benefits without interruption.

A press release from the GDOL states: As employers reopen their businesses, many have had questions on the process for transitioning employees from unemployment back to employment. The GDOL will begin rolling out the Claims Conversion Program next week with a series of webinars explaining options for getting employees back to work. In the past, when an employer permanently laid off an employee, the employee then had to file an individual claim, a process now taking more than 30 days. With this new program, this conversion will be made immediately without the employee having to refile the claim. The Claims Conversion Program will outline the steps for employees working reduced hours, permanent layoffs, employee refusals to return to work, severance packages, and other employment challenges.

“We are working with employers to help them meet their business needs,” said Commissioner Mark Butler. “In the meantime, we are continuing to encourage employers to file weekly on behalf of their employees until we can get the system implemented.”

But Leiden says there still may be disputes between claims made by those who are unemployed and their former employers.

“You can run into a conflict where the employer, in order to get the Payroll Protection Program has to say, ‘this job’s available, I’m ready to pay you as soon as you can come back.’ And then you’ve got the employee who’s collecting unemployment, and so there’s an overlap,” added Leiden. “You know, who’s right and who’s wrong,” he questioned. “And so I think that’s where a lot of people are going to get caught,” said Leiden.

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